February 17, 2014

Sin, Love, & Association (Valentine's Day 2014)

Apostle Paul?
Most Christians of most denominations know the answer to the question of whether we should continue sinning. We quote the Apostle Paul:
"Of course not! Since we have died to sin, how can we continue to live in it?" (Romans 6:2, NLT)
The rub, however, is how to actually pull this off. I have yet to meet a sin-free Christian, and I don't expect I ever will. In saying this, I reveal my own bias about our born-again nature, about how I view us. Others, preachers I've heard, for example, more optimistically say we can achieve mastery over time, getting to the point where we no longer sin. Cleverly playing Switzerland, Lutheran theology says we're 100% saint and sinner at the same time, but this probably doesn't clarify what Paul means in Romans 6.  

My purpose is not exegetical; my purpose is to consider what "not continuing in our sin" already means to most of us in our own normal experience. We who, on a good day, might say that we are getting there or have even arrived. The alternatives being to admit that we have no idea what Paul is talking about, to concede that we are inferior to real Christians, or to conclude that we aren't really saved. So what do we mean if we think of ourselves as generally successful Christians? That we are no longer sinners? Or that we are advancing to the next levels of sin, from the obvious "biggies" to more subtle, more debatable "sins"? Like spending too much of the family budget on tracts last month, or listening to NPR. Perhaps we think we should get credit for graduating to the private sins, ones easier to hide, ones easier for our churches to overlook? Do we get to a point where we stop thinking that sin is a problem, once we're no longer smoking, going to movies, reading the Living Bible, and wishing we were married? Even worse, when we practice denominational carbon trading, offsetting our sins with being more right in political or doctrinal debates. 

These are more disturbing possibilities than just blatantly sinning, knowing we're wrong, and confessing it. There is real danger for spiritual blindness when we become proficient at camouflaging our sin from others' notice and are smugly relieved to have a higher holiness score. This is sin, based on hypocrisy, compounded by deception and pride, and used as justification for avoiding other Christians -- even entire other churches deemed too "unbiblical," perhaps, for our tastes and standards. By contrast if we humble ourselves and admit that we never overcome much of our own sin, then what really is the difference between someone with many and someone with a few less than many sins, or someone else's 27% obedience to Christ and my 34%? What cause for boasting or comparison is there?

The root problem may well be that we use sin rather than love as the Christian lens when we look at ourselves, the church, and the world. What is wrong is the first thing we think about and look for, distorting our view of God's creation and scarring our hearts. Moreover sin scoring helps me perpetuate the myth that I'm better than you -- or at least that we're better than them. Your sin helps me sleep better, knowing that I won't be the first one Jesus kicks out of heaven. We need a theology that doesn't assume or require sinlessness as a condition -- not only before conversion but always. If I know I'm always a sinner, in the lifelong process of being fully saved by grace, then I should not embrace my sin or justify it. BUT I might spend more time thinking through what real Christianity looks like in the context of my ongoing sin instead of in the context of my amazingly whitewashed life. I might stop all the pretending that my smaller list of sins is better than someone else's longer list. Or that sinful I, with my sins of pride, sloth, gluttony, and secret lust, am surely more pleasing to God, secure in my salvation, and deserving of God's blessing and answers to all my prayers than those other, less righteous Christians who listen to rock music, think homosexuality might be natural, are divorced, struggle with addictions, or vote wrong. 

Mmmmm. Soup!
The truth is that I and probably most Christians who have been at this awhile still think a lot about sin and sin-tidying. It is still too much of the focus of our spiritual lives instead of loving the unlovely or even the simple task of setting tables at a soup kitchen. Instead of actually doing something that God wants us to, actually being God's hands and feet in a dying world. I doubt we're really living in the kingdom of God when most of the time we're praying for ourselves, singing songs we enjoy, calculating our 10% tithes, and solidifying our opposition to the rest of the church. We spend a lot of time and energy arguing about and critiquing the sins (personal, political, or doctrinal) of other Christians when it doesn't change anything, does the needy no good, and establishes a terrible model for how our children should live out their own faith.

What if we gave ourselves one entire day per year to publicly proclaim the fact of our opposition to other Christians' cherished or unacknowledged sins and then agreed to live out lives of grace and love and forgiveness and service with those liberal / fundamentalist / other Christians for the rest of the year?
The churches that care could get credit for saying they're not "being tolerant" of sin in the camp -- but without completely abandoning the great commandment. How different from what the world usually sees us doing! How will "They will know we are Christians by our love" ever happen when what we actually show the world most of the time is our hostility to each other's religious scorecards, styles of worship, and politics? If we can't stand the Body of Christ, why should anyone else listen to its "good news"?

We have to learn to show love in the midst of disagreement or we're no better than the pagans and tax collectors. And love means association, as Jesus' incarnation and social calendar demonstrated. We never get close to the point of showing love to the rest of the church as long as we stay separate, content to lob stones over our walls. We keep insisting on the condition of conformity with our view, our interpretation, our conviction, while refusing to worship or work together until they become like us. We need to start with love and hope for more-perfect agreement later, not the other way around. That's what "unconditional" requires. We can always wrestle with the details (what is immorality that precludes association, for example), but most of us still resist the very idea that agreement doesn't precede all else.

How about this: All parties agree that they are saved by Jesus, are still not free from all sin, are willing to be changed by God, and are willing to give up their own doctrinal idols if God should convince them. Shouldn't that be a good enough starting point for dishing up soup together? And you never know: Serve Jesus together today, maybe worship together someday.